A week ago Saturday, October 5, the Wall Street Journal ran an essay by Leon Botstein, college president and conductor. Title? “The Unsung Success of Live Classical Music.” Theme? Classical music is healthy, and not at all declining. Content? One myth after another.
I couldn’t post about this here, because I didn’t have time. But the myths have to be exploded. For instance:
…looking out at the audience at most classical music concerts in the United States, one sees a crowd that is largely middle-aged, verging on the geriatric. This has set off alarms within the music community, whose members are quick to blame the loss of a younger generation of listeners for the sorry state of classical music, waning ticket sales and a record market that has all but disappeared.
Memories are deceptive. Classical music has never been the passion of the young. It is an acquired taste that requires both encouragement and education, like voting or drinking Scotch. And in fact, more young people today are playing classical instruments than ever before, according to conservatory enrollments.
Well, that last part is true. Conservatory enrollments are healthy. Younger people are playing classical music, though they’re not going to classical concerts. (A provocative mystery.)
But has the audience always been the same age it is now? (Which in fact means older than middle-aged.) This is a persistent myth. I used to believe it, since music biz veterans repeated it so confidently. Then I started asking for data, and found that there wasn’t any. Then I started finding data that exploded the myth.
I’ve written about all of that here, more than once. Studies from 1937, 1955, and 1966 show an audience with a median age in its thirties, and in the first two studies in its early thirties. Studies done in the 1970s, which I haven’t talked about here, show an audience older than that, but nowhere near as old as it is now. Studies by the National Endowment for the Arts show the audience growing older between 1982 and 2002.
I’ve linked to much of this in the in-progress “Resources” sidebar on this blog. There’s also voluminous anecdotal evidence for a younger audience. This includes stories about the women in their teens and twenties who were Geraldine Farrar’s screaming “Gerryflapper” fans at the Metropolitan Opera in the 1920s. And also the famous passage about Beethoven’s Fifth in E. M. Forster’s novel Howard’s End, depicting people in their teens and twenties attending a performance, without one word about how this would have been unusual. Because it wasn’t.
Next, from Botsein:
The heralding of the demise of classical music is based on flimsy evidence. The number of concert venues, summer festivals, performing ensembles and overall performances in classical music and opera has increased exponentially over the last four decades. There are currently nearly 400 professional orchestras in America, according to the League of American Orchestras, while 30 years ago there were 203. There are up to 500 youth orchestras, up from 63 in 1990. The number of orchestra concerts performed annually in the U.S. has risen 24% in the past decade, to 37,000. Ticket-sale income from orchestra performances grew almost 18%, to $608 million, between the 2004-’05 and 2005-’06 seasons.
I’m surprised, quite frankly, to read this, from a man with credentials as a scholar. First, there’s no single baseline for all of Botstein’s comparisons. He compares the present era with 40 years ago, with 30 years ago, and with 10 years ago, and then compares the 2005-06 season with 2004-05. That’s not a sound use of statistics, especially since, from one decade to another, he’s comparing different things — the number of orchestras with the number of concerts with the size of ticket-sale income. He scrambles all of them together and comes up with a shiny, happy picture, which, superficially at least, seems to be a picture of enormous growth.
But he doesn’t mention the decline in orchestra attendance and (at least for the largest orchestras) alsio in ticket sales between the 1990s and now. (Note that attendance and ticket sales aren’t quite the same thing, since orchestras give both paid and free concerts — free concerts, for instance, for schoolkids, or in a city park on the Fourth of July.) So maybe orchestras saw growth, even explosive growth, from 40 to 15 years ago, and then began to decline. (My figures come from data made public by the League of American Orchestras, and also from numbers I’ve been shown privately.)
In the last two years there’s been an uptick in sales and attendance, but it hasn’t come close, from what I’ve been told, to making up the long-term decline. And it’s too early to say that the trend has been reversed. What happened, as far as I can see, is that orchestras — seeing that they had a problem — started using business marketing tools more intensively than they ever had before. As a result, they sold more tickets to their core audience, and to people much like their core audience.
This is a complex matter, which I’ll have to discuss in more detail in another post, but you can’t really say, if you know what’s going on, that orchestras are still in any period of long-term expansion. (My data here comes largely from private sources, though in an obscure press release, not available online, the New York Philharmonic let slip some impressive gains.)
But back to Botstein. There’s one other problem with his shiny, happy portrait. We don’t know what all that explosive growth — in the number of orchestras and the number of concerts they give, starting 40 years ago — really means. Botstein doesn’t explore this at all. Were there more orchestras because there was more demand for classical music? Or was there pent-up demand, in cities that didn’t have orchestras, so that when orchestras appeared in those cities, ticket sales were more or less automatic?
And why did the orchestras appear? Because America grew richer, so more cities could afford an orchestra? Because our population increased, so more cities had whatever critical mass it takes to support an orchestra? And what’s the relationship between the growth in the number of orchestras and the growth of our population? Do we have more orchestras per capita than we used to, or the same number, or fewer? It seems to be more — just quickly using figures i have on my computer, I found that the population increased 73% from 1972 to 2002, while (using Botstein’s figures) the number of orchestras more or less doubled. Adjusting for the increase in population, that’s no more than a 9% rise.
And orchestras aren’t the whole story. If we look at established chamber music series over the past 20 years, we’d almost certainly see a drop in ticket sales. I say “almost certainly” because I don’t know if anyone has collected any data, but in many conversations with people who run chamber music series, I hear about the audience declining. One venerable institution that I know about has lost from 10 to 20 subscribers, approximately, each year for the past decade. That doesn’t sound like much, until you add up the numbers. This group has around 700 subscribers now, and they used to have 800. That’s a 9% drop over 10 years, and there’s no sign that it’s ending.
I guess I’m not refuting myths here. I’m just supplying the kind of data that everyone ought to have before joining this discussion.
But here are more myths:
So why all the hand-wringing? Much of it stems from another false assumption: that classical music was once profitable, but is now failing financially. This distorted expectation is rooted in the peculiar experience of the last decades of the 19th century, after the rapid extension of literacy in Europe and America. Before recording became commercially viable in 1902, when the Columbia and Victor companies joined forces and issued discs, sales of instruments particularly the piano), concert tickets and sheet music were thriving businesses. With the advent of recorded music — first the player piano, then the radio, the 78 rpm record, the long-playing record and the digital CD — novel, albeit brief, opportunities for making money followed. These circumstances do not represent the broader historical norm. Classical music never held the promise that it could enlist a mass audience. From its birth as a secular and church-based art form, classical music has depended on patronage and philanthropy, not on income from sales either at the box office or in record stores.
First, I think it’s a myth that anyone — or, cerhe tainly, any large number of people — ever asserted what Botstein outlines here. I’ve never seen anyone do it. It’s true that classical recording used to be profitable, and also true that for the most part it’s not profitable now, but that doesn’t tell us anything about the field at large. Of course concerts don’t make a profit. Everybody knows that. If recordings now aren’t profitable, I’d take that as one sign of classical music’s decline — classical recordings apparently sell many fewer copies than they used to, which would have to be one big reason why they don’t make a profit. (I say “apparently” because, at least for now, all I have here is anecdotal numbers.)
But this isn’t the most important issue, when we talk about classical music’s finances, and neither is any question of whether classical music ever had or ever needs a mass audience. Porsche stays in business selling cars very few people buy. The only question is whether classical music can support itself.
And here the numbers are sobering. The percent of income classical music institutions make from ticket sales has been declining for nearly a century, and maybe for longer. In 1937, when there was a major study of American orchestras (which is why we know the age of the audience back then), orchestras made from 70% to 90% of their income from ticket sales. It’s been declining ever since — and not, by the way, simply because of the vast expansion in orchestra seasons made possible in the ’60 by Ford Foundation funding, which went along with a nice bump in musicians’ salaries. The decline in the percentage of income coming from ticket sales had begun before that, and continued afterward. You can blame Baumol’s Dilemma (aka the “cost disease”), or find some other explanation, but clearly there’s long-term financial pressure on classical music institutions, which leads to repeated crises.
The behind the scenes financial picture at big orchestras and opera companies often isn’t pretty, and blind optimism — “we’re not supposed to make money; we’ve always been supported by donors” — doesn’t begin to provide any answers. Where’s the next generation of donors going to come from, if there might not be a next-generation audience?